Why Mohammed Khatami Matters:
Mohammed Khatami represents the most moderate, intellectually urbane wing of the Iranian theocracy. He was the Iranian president for two terms (1997-2005) and declared his candidacy for the June 12, 2009 presidential election, then chose to withdraw and support Mir-Hossein Mousavi
instead. Khatami’s presidential tenure included several diplomatic and tactical overtures toward the United States, which President Bush rebuffed by branding Iran part of the “axis of evil” and damaging Khatami’s standing as a moderate. Khatami rejects the “clash of civilization” thesis, and is devoted to cross-cultural dialogue.
Khatami’s Personal History:
Mihammed Khatami was born in Ardakan, a city in central Iran, on Sept. 29, 1943, the son of respected Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ruholla Khatami. He briefly studied with Ayatollah Khomeini in the holy city of Qom before earning a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Isfahan
and a graduate education degree from the University of Tehran. In 1974, he married Zohreh Sadegghi, whose uncle was Musa Sadr (who became the leader of Lebanon’s Shiite community in 1958 but disappeared while on a peace mission in Libya in 1978). The Khatamis have two daughters and a son.
Khatami’s Political Rise:
Khatami has always been more interested in theology and philosophy than politics. He’s also always found himself at the junction of modern Iranian history’s most important currents. In 1977 he was among the founders of the Society of Combatant Clergy, or the Militant Clerics’ Association, known by its Iranian acronym, JRM, which worked to overthrow the Shah of Iran and played a pivotal role in the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Working for JRM in Germany in 1978, Khatami mobilized expatriate Iranianians before returning to Khomeini's Iran to head the state’s Keyhan Publishing Company and its newspaper, Keyhan.
Member of Parliament, Permissive Cultural Minister:
Khatami was elected to Iran’s first Parliament in 1980 and named Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in 1982. The position that made him the country’s ultimate book, movie and news media censor. It also made clear that Khatami was not fond of censorship. Culture thrived in his 10 years as minister. He was forced to resign in 1992 by conservative clerics who found him too permissive.
Khatami became President Rafsanjani’s cultural adviser from 1992 to 1997, when he won the presidency—in the first freely contested vote since the 1980 revolution—with 69 percent of the vote.
The Khatami Presidency, 1997-2005:
Khatami’s two terms as president were riddled with crises, the result of an economy left unmanaged for more than a decade, a country still paying the debilitating costs of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), and a political establishment sclerotic with conservative clerics opposed to Khatami’s modernist reforms. He reportedly survived an assassination attempt in 2000. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry waged a backdoor war against him, imprisoning dissidents and repressing civil rights and liberties. Despite the problems, he was reelected in 2001 with 70 percent of the vote.
Khatami’s Criticism of Ahmadinejad:
Constitutionally, he could not run for a third consecutive term. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the presidency.
Speaking before some 1,000 students at Tehran University in December 2007, Khatami publicly denounced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repressive measures against dissidents and the damage he caused Iran’s image abroad. Khatami also blistered Ahmadinejad’s handling of the economy, which was deteriorating severely—with increases in poverty and drug-addiction rates and decreases in economic productivity—despite rising oil prices. Khatami said he opposed defining justice only in economic terms.
Khatami’s 1998 CNN Interview:
During a Jan. 7, 1998, interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Khatami said he was open to cultural ties with the United States as one way to thaw relations. But he opposed diplomatic ties. “We feel no need for ties with the U.S.,” Khatami said, “especially as the modern world is so diverse and plural that we can reach our objectives without U.S. assistance. I especially feel that many progressive countries-including the Europeans- are far more advanced in their foreign policies than the U.S.. We are carrying out our own activities and have no need for political ties with the United States.”
Khatami’s “Dialogue Among Civilizations”:
In the fall of 2006, Khatami became the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit Washington since President Carter cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 1980. Khatami was on a five-city tour to promote his “Dialogue Among Civilizations” theory. Khatami rejects the theory of a “clash of civilizations and considers the spiritual dialogue between belligerent nations’ different religions one way to cross political divides. He again repeated his belief that democracy and criticism go together. In 2007,
The Limits and Possibilities of Khatami’s Appeal:
Westerners seeing Khatami as the ideal alternative to conservative and reactionary nature of the Iranian regime may be disappointed. The power of the Iranian president is limited. Power ultimately lies with Mohammed Khamenei, the “Supreme Leader,” who controls all aspects of policy and
The president’s power is also tempered, and sometimes snubbed, by the armed and powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which considers itself the guardian of the Iranian Revolution. For example, even as Khatami was talking about a new dialogue with the United States in 1998, the Iranian military was testing missiles able to hit Israel and Saudi Arabia, imprisoning and executing what the Corps considers “deviants,” such as homosexuals, and sending mixed signals about Iran’s intentions to acquire nuclear weapons.
Khatami’s liberalism itself should not be overstated. He is still a strong believer in the Iranian Revolution and, even after leaving the presidency in 2005, a frequent visitor to Khamenei’s office, where Khatami clears any of his high-level, high-visibility interactions on the world stage. Khatami’s presence on the Iranian scene allows the ultra-conservative regime to give the appearance of a degree of pluralism without endorsing the pluralism’s implications: Khatami’s words about a dialogue between civilizations have been, so far, limited to words.
Still, according to Hooman Majd, the Iranian-American journalist who meets frequently with Khatami, the once-and-possibly-future Iranian president may see the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States as a matter of time. To Khatami, Majd writes in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, “had there not been an American election in 2000” and Bill Clinton stayed in office, or “had the Supreme Court decided its outcome differently” and Al Gore become the 43rd president, “Iran and the United States might have found a way toward normalization of relations.”
That suggests a tantalizing possibility, should Khatami have a role in a new government after June 2009, should Ahmadinejad be defeated--and with President Obama, who’s already made plain his desire to talk with Iran, in office.